Why You Shouldn’t Get Your Medical Advice on TV

Medical dramas are a very popular TV genre, which have been around for over 60 years.  Typically a medical case is used as the backbone of the episode, providing viewers with a sense of mystery and allow the writers to develop the characters as they interact to solve the case and treat the patient. Many of these programs have medical consultant to lend credibility to the show as well as to generate content, but is this enough?

Although these shows try to remain medically accurate, they are not a good source for medical information.  First off the priority of the show is to entertain not to educate.  As such they tend to focus on the sensational aspects of medicine as opposed to the most common.  Self-diagnosing based on these TV shows, will lead you to believe the cause of your illness is extreme. While there are always exceptions, it is most reasonable to begin with the most likely cause, while keeping other possible diagnosis at hand.  For instance, a runny nose in the spring is far more likely to be due to allergic rhinitis opposed to Kartagener syndrome or Wegener granulomatosis (who knows what those are!?).

Starting with the most extreme diagnoses, we would have to expose patients to many unnecessary tests as we ruled them out. These shows do, however, give insight into how physicians think.  The foundation of diagnosis is generating a differential diagnosis, aka a list of all the possible explanations for the patients’ symptoms. This process is constant for a physician. A patient typically comes in with a presenting symptom and the physician questions to narrow the field down to the most likely cause.

These shows might also paint an unrealistic picture of the practice of medicine.  TV dramas have one small team running all of their own tests, operating on every organ system, and managing every aspect of the patients care.   In reality medicine is delivered by a much larger team which includes a radiologist, pathologist, anesthesiologists, internal medicine physicians and specialists, and many technicians, nurses, and medical assistants.

Self-diagnosis and the internet is similar but a little bit better.  If you do choose to look up your symptoms online use credible websites, e-medicine, WebMD, or pages associated with medical schools, (for example the mayo clinic has extensive information regarding many conditions).  It is important to remember that not everything published to the internet is equal, some site are supported by medical evidence while others are simply personal opinion.

The internet can be very helpful in learning about a condition following a diagnosis, this way you can make informed decisions regarding your healthcare.  Again it is very important to choose reputable sources.  You can also find wonderful resources and support following diagnosis.  Many find comfort connect with other who have their same conditions, and the internet has made this process much easier.